A significantly increasing proportion of oropharyngeal head and neck carcinomas (OSCC) in North America and Europe are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infections. HPV-related OSCC is regarded as a distinct tumor type with regard to its cellular, biologic, and clinical characteristics. Patients with HPV-related OSCC have significantly better local control, but higher rates of regional lymph node and distant metastases as compared to patients with HPV-negative OSCC. Classical molecular genetic investigations demonstrated specific chromosomal aberration signatures in HPV-related OSCC, and recent developments in next generation sequencing (NGS) technology have rendered possible the sequencing of entire genomes, and thus detection of specific mutations, in just a few days. Initial data from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project obtained by using genome-wide high throughput methods have confirmed that HPV-related OSCC contain fewer, albeit more specific mutations than HPV-negative tumors. Additionally, these data revealed the presence of specific-potentially therapeutically targetable-activating driver mutations in subgroups of HPV-positive OSCC, some of which have a prognostic impact. Specific targeted NGS technologies provide new possibilities for identification of diagnostic, prognostic, and predictive biomarkers and the development of personalized cancer treatment. Patients with HPV-positive tumors are likely to profit from these developments in the future, since the genetic alterations are relatively homogenous and frequently lead to signal pathway activation. There is an urgent need for network research activities to carry out the necessary basic research in prospective cohort studies.
Keywords: Head and neck cancer; High-throughput nucleotide sequencing; Human papillomavirus; Mutation; Virus integration.